Axelrod on Barack Obama, Harold Washington, Rahm Emanuel and more

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The Barack Obama logo — a sun coming up over the horizon — worn by millions of Americans during Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign might have seemed naggingly familiar to older Chicagoans.

That’s because it was inspired by Harold Washington’s 1983 mayoral campaign, former White House senior adviser David Axelrod told a youth forum Tuesday.

Obama’s red-white-and-blue logo represented “inclusion” and was inspired by the blue-and-white buttons that African Americans and other Washington supporters wore in 1983 when Washington made history as Chicago’s first black mayor.

“What we saw over time were these little blue buttons with a sunrise, kind of white lines on them … these were badges of pride. These were declarations of involvement,” said Axelrod, who worked on Obama’s campaign and covered Washington’s as a reporter.

“I took this to be this incredibly positive thing because people realized ‘I have a place in this city too.’”


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Please enable Javascript to watch this videoThe “Youth in Politics with David Axelrod” forum was sponsored by “Early & Often,” the Chicago Sun-Times new political portal. It was moderated by Sun-Times political reporter Natasha Korecki and held at the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center downtown.

A crowd of mostly Chicago area high school students turned out to hear Axelrod expound on everything from how Rahm Emanuel will challenge mayoral competitors to why young Americans should be involved in the political process to the Republican gubernatorial race.

Amid a storied career, Axelrod said his biggest regret is that Washington died before meeting Obama.

“I know that they would have been incredibly close,” Axelrod said in response to a student’s question about the similarities between Obama’s and Washington’s campaigns. “He would have been a great mentor for Obama. And it was tragic that their paths never crossed, because they had qualities in common.”

Those qualities, Axelrod said, include evoking a strong sense of community among supporters. He said Washington’s 1983 campaign brought out enthusiasm within the young African-American community that he had never seen, and that Washington’s competitors were hoping to suppress.

“Harold was about inclusion. Everyone needs to be a full citizen here in Chicago, full participant,” said Axelrod, now director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.

Axelrod worked as a political consultant on Washington’s re-election campaign in 1987 and said he decided to use an Obama logo in 2008 designed to “recapture that kind of spirit” that Washington’s campaign evoked among young voters.

Jumping to current local politics, Axelrod spoke of his longtime friend Emanuel as a “highly motivated” mayor who “treats every challenger seriously.”

“He’s a guy who is, I always say, like a heat-seeking missile. Whatever he decides is his objective,” Axelrod said. “I’ve never seen him happier, or more challenged by a job than the one he has now and he loves being the mayor. He loves the city. I think he’s going to fight very hard to keep that job.”

Addressing the current gubernatorial battle in Illinois, Axelrod said state Treasurer Dan Rutherford didn’t handle the sexual harassment allegations against him well, allowing the issue to marginalize his campaign.

Axelrod said should venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, who’s spent more than $6 million of his own money so far, win the March 18 Republican primary, Gov. Pat Quinn will have to fight back aggressively,

“I don’t know the answer [of how Quinn can fight back],” Axelrod said.

But he suggested Quinn have “ a group of forensic accountants” scrutinize Rauner’s business interests.

“When someone hasn’t served in public life, the only way you can get some clues as to their philosophy and their mode of operation is to look closely at what they have done,” Axelrod said.

But, he warned that “search and destroy” campaigns aren’t what politics should be about and that money can’t buy a seat.

“These campaigns are a way for voters to assess how you handle pressure, how you handle difficult questions, how you reason through your positions, and no one should sail through an election campaign hiding behind a pile of money,” Axelrod said. “You ought to be challenged. You ought to be tested.”

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